“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
Kabul airport. Photos: Archive of members of the group evacuated from Afghanistan thanks to the UO action
They could not believe their eyes when, right in the middle of the crowd swarming outside Kabul airport, a man was shot dead. Children shrieked, women went numb. A Taliban put a gun to the temple of one man in their group. His sister shielded him with her own body. ”If you want to do something to him, you have to do it to me first,” she said. It was a moment of sheer terror. The Taliban stepped back.
War, terror, death. "Get us out of this hell".
The staff of the University of Opole involved in the Erasmus programme had known for weeks about what was happening in Afghanistan, that the situation was becoming more dramatic with each passing day. A university employee, an Afghan living in Opole for several years, was in constant contact with his family in Afghanistan. The information from his relatives was increasingly dramatic. “This is war, terror, death,” they wrote.
After August 16, desperate emails began to arrive from students who had spent a semester at the University of Opole as part of the Erasmus programme. They wrote to the man they had spent a lot of time with during their stay in Opole - Dr Michał Wanke from the UO Institute of Linguistics, the Erasmus+ coordinator at the UO Faculty of Philology. "We were with you, remember? Please help us. Get us out of here! Get us out of this hell," they pleaded.
“We're the only university in Poland that cooperates with Afghanistan as part of the Erasmus+ programme, and I couldn't imagine we could remain indifferent to what was happening there now,” says Halina Palmer-Piestrak, institutional coordinator of the Erasmus+ programme at the UO. “We couldn't and we didn't want to ignore such emails,” - she is struggling to hide her emotions. “We wondered what to do. And then we got an impulse in the form of information that, thanks to a volunteer from Warsaw, the family of an employee of an Afghan university that cooperated with our university had been successfully evacuated. This volunteer had previously asked Michał Wanke to verify the man's connections with Poland, which was necessary in order for him to be put on the evacuation list. It worked. On Tuesday, 17 August, we received the information that he and his relatives had been rescued. And then it occurred to me to ask this volunteer if she would be willing to help organise an operation to bring 'our' 18 Afghans to Poland.”
“I wrote to her and she replied: we have very little time; we need the commitment of a large group of people. If you have such potential, I will tell you what to do and we will act.”
Emails to everybody, everybody helps
The machine starts on Thursday morning, August 19. Halina Palmer-Piestrak, Michał Wanke and a few others set in motion all possible connections with MPs, ministers, ambassadors, members of the European Parliament, private acquaintances, humanitarian volunteers, in a word to everyone who might be decisive in the matter or able to pass it on higher up.
The Rector of the UO, Professor Marek Masnyk, signs a letter in which he asks for extensive support for the action. He writes, among other things:
I appeal for all support in the evacuation from Afghanistan of family members of our long-time employee (...). Over six years of service in the administration of exchange programmes at the University of Opole (...) and working on student exchange projects with Afghan universities, thanks to which several young people came to study in Opole, put the people from his closest circle in mortal danger. The fundamentalist regime that is taking power in Afghanistan by force is likely to draw consequences against the family [...] for maintaining close ties with the Western world and being active in the field of education, especially for women, who made up half of the group of our students. I also request the evacuation from Afghanistan of students who have studied for a semester at the UO. They include women, for whom exposure to the democratic values of the West, in the face of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, is now a mortal danger. Among the six of our students in need of assistance are female activists, collaborators and associates of democratic NGOs who, precisely because of their activism in their home country, were selected from hundreds of candidates for the 2016-2019 scholarship at the UO.
Personal details of the eighteen people to be evacuated are being prepared - mainly how to contact them and their passport numbers. Any emails sent requesting assistance must be brief, containing only necessary but complete details.
“We were instructed that an official at the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will have literally one minute to read this message, because they are receiving hundreds of similar ones, and they need to learn everything important instantly”, says Halina Palmer-Piestrak.
By 3 p.m., on August 19, e-mails reach their addressees, and they go on further.
Answers arrive. Marcin Ociepa, Deputy Minister of National Defence, calls and advises: Send everything to the address of the operational centre of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which deals with evacuation issues, with a note that everything is settled with Minister Marcin Przydacz from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Do not get separated
Eighteen Afghans are being given instructions via communicators on how to behave.
You must get to Kabul airport, to a specific point and nowhere else.
All you take with you is water, provisions, passports, phones and powerbanks.
Do not get separated under any circumstances.
Stand out in the crowd outside the airport: wear a big P on your right sleeve.
Send us your photos, and we will send them to the Polish team at Kabul airport.
Write "University of Opole" on anything and keep the sign up.
“On Friday morning we received a sheet with the data of our Afghans to fill in," recalls Halina Palmer-Piestrak, who - together with Michał Wanke who was in Opole - co-ordinated the action from... a holiday in the mountains. “Among other things, we were asked about the location of these people. We reported that they were about 40 kilometres from the airport. It gave them a chance to get to the airport somehow.”
On Friday evening Halina’s and Michał's phones rang. The Afghans, happy but still scared, reported that they had received information about being put on the evacuation list. This information was verified by the Polish embassy in New Delhi.
Now all they had to do was to reach the airport and go through Taliban control. The deadly part of the operation...
Here the ICAD foundation, which provides, inter alia, humanitarian aid, is of great help; its representative is in contact with Jarosław Kubiak from the UO, who appealed on Facebook for support for the action. “She told us that the foundation had volunteers in Afghanistan who helped the locals to get to the airport, provided them with maps... She explained to us the details of the evacuation route and that our people had to get to a specific point at the airport from where the Polish personnel would evacuate them.”
Meanwhile, two elderly persons, included in the list, decide to stay in Afghanistan. “One of them was injured when she wanted to help someone from her family, she was trampled by the crowd,” says Halina Palmer-Piestrak. “Perhaps these people were afraid that they would delay the group, that they wouldn't manage... They decided to stay.”
No contact for hours
The rest of the group attempts to reach the airport. There is no contact with them for several hours. Hours of uncertainty and fear in Opole.
Finally, the first reports come in through internet communicators. They are shocking.
The Opole Afghans cannot believe their eyes when a man is shot right beside them in the swirling crowd. Children break into shrill screams. A man from the group is hit in the face with a rifle butt. A Taliban puts a gun to his head. His sister shields him with her own body. ”If you want to do something to him, you have to do it to me first,” she shouts. It was a moment of sheer horror.
Then the photos started coming in. The crowd in front of the airport. Our group together, complete - a miracle! Children aged from two to eleven, little ones on their parents' shoulders. Maybe in a moment they will be under the care of soldiers.
“That was the moment when I thought I could not stand it, that I could not cope with my emotions," says Halina. She asked Michał to replace her and take over contact with the group.
A few hours later the news comes: after repeated attempts the group has passed through the Taliban checkpoints! It is safe under the protection of Polish and American commandos. In Opole, everyone sighs with relief, the adrenaline subsides.
Four students land in Poland on Sunday, 22 August, a family of ten and two female students on Monday morning. They are placed in the government centres.
We will not leave them alone
“In the near future there will be a working meeting at the University of Opole, during which all possibilities of help will be considered,” says Halina Palmer-Piestrak. “We have received preliminary declarations of support from the city, from the local government of the voivodeship and from various aid organisations. We need to coordinate all these good signals and do what we can. I know that the evacuated students have already applied for the possibility to study at the UO. After a month, they will all receive residence cards in Poland. They are educated people who had a certain social status in Afghanistan. They will certainly want to build their lives here anew. Because they left everything there. They escaped in what they were wearing.”
For the time being, the rescued Afghans are in compulsory ten-day quarantine in the government centres due to the Covid-19 pandemic, where they receive all information about their rights and obligations in relation to the situation they find themselves in.
“We are expecting them to come to Opole, I am looking forward to the meeting, as is probably our entire academic community," says Halina Palmer-Piestrak. “We keep getting messages from them saying how grateful they are that we saved their lives. We receive e-mails from all over Poland. Friends write: you have inspired us. They want to help, they offer all kinds of support, including psychological.”
Only now she has a moment to analyse her emotions.
“The last few days were full of fear for these people and uncertainty as to whether we were doing the right thing,” she says. “It was terrible to think what would be better or worse: to leave them there without help, facing repression and death, or to help evacuate them and put them in mortal danger at the airport? We felt responsible for them, not only as people, but also as an institution. For it was we who made it possible for them to stay in Poland, to study at our university, thus entailing certain consequences for them in Afghanistan; let us remember that our students were women's rights activists in that country. During this action, someone cited a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, in which the fox addresses the Little Prince: People have forgotten this truth, but you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. We felt responsible, so we tried to help. We succeeded, thanks to the enormous commitment and determination of many people here in Poland and the great will to live and the courage of those evacuated from Afghanistan.” Joy and relief beyond words.
The University of Opole is the only university in Poland to cooperate with universities from Afghanistan under the Erasmus+ Programme. In the academic years 2016-2019, the UO cooperated with 5 Afghan universities: Taj Institute of Higher Education, Salam University, Kabul University, Rana University, and Kardan University. A total of 37 student and staff mobilities were carried out over these years.